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Youngkin bill would widen path for charter schools

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Glenn Youngkin

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin on the campaign trail last year.

Privately run schools funded with public dollars could have an easier path to opening their doors in urban and suburban localities — and without the support of local school boards — under legislation filed in the Virginia Senate and backed by Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s administration.

The bill is one of the first moves by the nascent Youngkin administration to deliver on a campaign promise to vastly expand the number of charter schools in Virginia from fewer than 10 to about 200. Youngkin will be sworn in on Saturday.

Charter schools, which operate using public dollars but with some independence from the local school board, are rare in Virginia. Youngkin and some Republicans in the legislature say charter schools could be a response to parent frustration with their local schools, in part brought on by pandemic policies.

Democratic leaders in both chambers and in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus have said charter schools could drain resources from cash-strapped local school districts. Charter school systems in other states have faced criticism for fostering socioeconomic or racial disparities, and where accountability is lacking, for failing to properly educate students as private entities benefit financially.

But, with support from just a few Democrats in the Senate, where the party has a slim, 21-19 edge, the policy could easily wind up on the governor’s desk.

The Youngkin-backed charter school bill would let the state Board of Education create “regional charter school divisions” made up of two or three localities. Each of the localities would have to enroll at least 3,000 students and have at least one school struggling with accreditation.

The regional bodies would have the power to approve new charter schools, and would be made up of eight board members appointed by the state Board of Education, and one member appointed by the localities included in the regional division.

Under that system, localities would always have minority power and would be unable to reject charter school applicants — outnumbered by board members appointed by a charter-friendly state government.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham who introduced the bill, said the proposal addresses a key hurdle for charter schools to open in Virginia: That they need authorization to open from the local school district, which would compete with the school for enrollment and the funding attached to those students.

“We don’t have many people even applying because they know what the answer is going to be: no,” Obenshain said in an interview.

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The senator acknowledged the bill takes some power over the process away from localities, but said that in cases where schools are failing, local parents would be supportive.

“If I was a parent in a school division that had failed to achieve accreditation for 10 years straight, I would be so happy that something was being done to offer a different alternative in my community,” Obenshain said.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who heads the education panel in the House, said a bill similar to Obenshain’s is expected to be filed in the House, where Republicans have a 52-48 edge.

They may need that majority to fend off criticisms from Democrats against the model.

“There is nuance in the charter school issue. But the system we have is an adequate system, a locality-driven process,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a teacher who will sit on the education panel. “Charters foster more segregation and can take away teacher voice.”

VanValkenburg met with Youngkin last month to talk about charter schools, among other issues. “I don’t think that charter schools are going to help build a better educational system in Virginia. But I had the conversation,” he said.

In the Senate, Republicans will have to appeal to Democrats. Democrats have a 21-19 edge, though starting next week, GOP Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears will have the power to cast tie-breaking votes.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said this week charter schools would simply drain public funding for education. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who has been heavily involved in education policy, said this week she and the legislative Black caucus would also oppose policies that take the power over charter school authorization or funding away from localities.

“We will fight any effort to undermine our public education system either through lack of funding or diverting funding to other methods,” she said.

Still, Youngkin may find enough support from other Democrats in the Senate. In an interview Thursday, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said he is open to the idea of charter schools. He said he supports giving parents more choices, and taking away localities’ power to “veto” new schools.

“A lot of people in the Democratic caucus may be a hard no. But that’s not me,” Petersen said. “Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, there is some degree of dissatisfaction with the public schools system, driven in part by how it reacted to the pandemic.

“We need to give parents an option.”

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